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Writing Workshop
A Brief Guide to Writing
Film Papers
Although most students would have had their
fair share of writing book reviews and literary
analyses, and are thus accustomed to interpreting
symbolism and rhetorical devices, the same
students might find themselves at a loss when it
comes to writing about the other popular
narrative medium—film.
Why is this so? Don’t both film and literature tell
us stories? As the New Wave director Alexandre
Astruc wrote in an essay for the legendary film
journal Cahiers Du Cinema, “the director uses the
camera as an author uses the pen.” It is not
uncommon to see students approaching films as
they would literature, focusing on the things that
pertain mainly to the script of the film: the plot,
the themes, the dialogue, etc. But in doing this,
students miss out on what makes film unique as
an art form: the moving image. Writing about
film requires special attention to its nature as a
representative medium—its form and technique,
rather than its content or story.
A good analysis of any art form, going beyond a
mere exposition or paraphrase of what the art
tells its audience, is generally rooted in two
things: the way the artist uses the tools of that
particular art form to express something and the
context in which the art is made. While the latter
type of analysis borders on being historical, the
former is unique to the form/medium, on which
film studies as a discipline is centered.
Wesleyan University
Writing Workshop
Name of author
Major, class year of author
When analyzing the film form, we must learn to
identify the unique tools of the filmmaker and
examine the effects these tools have upon the
audience. This guide approaches writing about film
from the formal angle rather than the historical
angle;* it provides 5 easy-to-remember rules, a few
sample pieces—along with commentary on each
sample’s strengths and weaknesses—and some
links you might find useful for reference.
* If you’re writing about film history, you might want
to frame your writing more historically, although some
techniques of analysis and interpretation might be
useful from the formal angle.
5 G eneral Rules
1. Pay close attention to detail
When doing a close analysis of a scene, it is vital to
be aware of the smaller details. Different people
have different strategies on how to keep an eye out
for details and remember them. Some people
prefer taking notes while watching the scene, while
others like watching the scene once over without
taking notes before re-watching it while jotting
down notes. Some others prefer to focus on one
particular filmmaking tool (editing, color, framing,
etc.) whenever they re-watch a scene. Whatever
your preferred method of note taking, it is
important that your analysis reveals keen attention
to detail.
The following is an example of a detailed analysis
of a scene taken from a paper on Make Way for
The camera then tracks to a closer shot of
Ma as she goes to pick up a letter. We see
her look at the letter and then in the first
of several eye-line match shots, we see her
POV as she reads the letter (the fact that it
is a POV shot is reinforced by the camera
panning over the letter much as eyes
would). Because we share her point of
view, we are very directly aligned with her
at this point. As such, when she learns that
the letter is from an aged women’s home,
the audience learns this information
simultaneously. The diegetic music also
subtly shifts to a sadder tone as the camera
pans to the words “Idylwild Home for
Aged Women,” providing us with an
emotional cue. Our alignment with Ma
helps us to sympathize with her and also
gives us an upper hand in the next scene,
as we know that she has seen the letter, but
George does not.
The passage above focuses on the techniques that
are used to align us with the emotions of Ma, and
establishes a hierarchy of knowledge between the
audience and the characters. Not every scene
needs to be written in as much detail as the scene
described above, and for shorter papers and
journals, this might be too much.
In reading and assigning most analytical film essays,
instructors are not as concerned with plot and
analysis thereof. Instead, one should discuss the plot
only as it is necessary to understand the way the film
works formally. Here we have very detailed
descriptions of camera movement, types of shots
used, use of score, and the context of the scene
within the story. This paragraph shows how all of
these elements work together in creating a certain
effect and establish why that is important.
2. Interpret symbols not just
for the ideas they represe nt,
but also for their effects
As mentioned in the introduction, one of the most
common pitfalls of freshman film students is
devoting large portions of their essays to
interpreting symbolism. Not only does such
interpretation involve a high degree of subjectivity,
but analyses of film techniques lie outside of overt
symbolism. When giving students advice on the
first test about the use of color, Professor Higgins
often warns students against interpreting colors as
being overtly symbolic, saying, “Don’t say red
means angry and don’t say blue means sad.” This
is not to say that symbolic analysis has no place in
these papers—in fact it is often unavoidable— but
that one should exercise caution when doing so:
one should stay away from over-simplification and
check that one’s interpretation relates to the film’s
Here is an example taken from an essay on Singin’
in the Rain that interprets symbolism and relates it
to the larger context of film: “The boldness of the
color in this scene is a visual representation of the
coming of sound in the film industry.” Here we
see something akin to symbolism. A key phrase,
however, is “visual representation.” When talking
about film, it is more often relevant to describe
how certain techniques create an emotional
effect. So when the author above talks about how
color is a visual representation of the coming of
sound, they don’t mean that it symbolizes this, but
rather that it emphasizes and visually portrays the
feeling of the novelty of an event that is already
The following is another example of the
interpretation of symbolism and representation
from an essay about Make Way for Tomorrow that is
appropriate for film analysis:
We then see a wide shot of Rhoda dancing.
This encounter continues the thread from
the previous scene depicting the
problematic tension between the youthful
Rhoda and the elderly “Ma” Cooper. The
jazz music itself is associated with youth
and is shown to disturb Ma. Rhoda’s
dancing is also energetic and youthful. The
mise-en-scène also contributes to this
theme with the strong contrast between
Rhoda’s bright, trendy outfit and Ma’s
black, matronly dress. The director uses
mise-en-scène at various points to connect
to larger themes. Another example of this
later in the sequence is Ma’s rocking chair,
a motif associated with old age throughout
the film.
Here we have a more explicit reference to
symbolism, where certain elements of the scene
are embodiments of a central theme. This
example, however, is a good example of how one
can speak about symbolism cinematically,
referencing the choices of mise-en-scène by the
director and clearly justifying the connections
to the themes.
3. Justify your analy sis
It is one thing to make a statement such as “Color
elevates the fantasy of the scene,” for a scene more
removed from reality than the rest of the movie,
and another thing to explain how it does that and
why it is important.
In explaining “how,” you have to be able to justify
how a technique you say has a certain effect
achieves that effect. So instead of saying simply
that color elevates the fantasy, it is better to say
something like: “For most of the movie, the
director utilizes a restrained color palette with very
few bright colors. In this scene, however, there is
an abundance of bright color separating it from
the rest of the film visually and highlighting the
fantastical nature of the scene.”
Explaining why something is important is also key.
Oftentimes students say that the director does
something and this has a particular effect, but fail
to relate this to a larger point. It is very important
to ground the details you analyze in some
larger point about how the film or the scene
works as a whole and not just list a string of
techniques used without unifying them in some
4. Be specific to the film
Oftentimes papers analyzing color will say
something along the lines of “In this scene, the
director uses color to help to direct the audience’s
attention within the frame.” This kind of analysis,
while true, only scratches the surface. An
important question to ask oneself when analyzing
a film is how any particular technique—such as the
use of color—is used within the unique context of
the film in question. All of the choices made in a
film help to shape that film as a unique work
of art. If Citizen Kane had been shot in color what
would change? How would the director convey the
same emotions using different techniques and
what would be lost or gained in the process?
Basically, film essays on form should focus on how
the techniques used within a film help the director
portray a particular story and a particular
emotion either in one scene or in the film as a
whole. Analysis of a film should be unique to that
film and one should first understand what a film is
trying to accomplish before one goes about trying
to understand the means by which it accomplishes
(or fails to accomplish) that goal. Star Wars feels
grand and operatic. One thing—among others—
that helps it do this is the style of the score. Wes
Anderson films feel quirky and artificial. His
symmetrical framing and painterly use of color are
part of this.
The following is an excerpt from a film journal on
Man on a Ledge, showing how analysis should be
focused on the specific:
Character and clarity of story trump
realism whenever necessary. The noise
from the crowd that gathers beneath the
ledge is a good example. Throughout the
first half of the film the crowd grows until it
can roar an ugly chant of “Jump Jump
Jump.” But this is a convenient roar that
quiets whenever characters need to talk, and
rises when we need to be reminded of Nick’s
desperation. Eventually the roar changes its
attitude. The crowd decides that Nick is a
folk hero to be cheered. Just when Angie
needs encouragement to crawl through a
terrifyingly tight air duct, Nick can tell her
over his com link that the crowd is pulling for
her. The music builds, she pauses in the air
duct, and then the crowd’s chants make their
way into the sound mix, implausibly
penetrating Angie’s spy-film quiet space. It
makes no physical sense, but like the score,
the crowd’s roar briefly crosses spaces and
confirms character motivation. She crawls
forward. If the film is working, then this
manipulation should go unnoticed. It all
happens again in the denouement: noise in a
crowded bar fades out so that Joey can
propose to Angie. All sounds share the same
aim, the emotional engagement of the viewer.
Here we see the author making a general point about
the film, that character and clarity of story trump
realism, and showing how this is done through
sound. The author contextualizes each moment in
the broader context of the film and describes how
the techniques used function within the particularities
of the story being told by this movie. These
techniques are used in many films, but this example
shows the uniqueness of how they are used in Man on
a Ledge.
5. K now your audience
You know who will be reading your paper: your
There are certain pedagogical purposes—other than
to decide what overall grade to award you with—
your professor wants to achieve by assigning a paper
topic. Thus it is important to read the prompt very
closely. Pay attention to keywords in the prompt
that tell you to do something: Analyze, Explain,
Evaluate, Comment, Discuss? What, How, Why?
Are there key themes and technical terms that
have been used often in lectures?
The prompt should also be read in context. The
Once you have an outline, read the prompt again
and check your outline against the prompt to make
sure you are on track to answering all the questions
The prompt should also be read in context. The
professor often has an intention for the main
themes of a course and what he or she hopes
students will learn. These purposes differ based on
the professor and the course agenda. Thus it is
important to closely read and internalize what is on
the syllabus. It is good practice to re-read the
syllabus before writing a paper so as to internalize
the broad themes of the class and to remind
oneself of what the professor is hoping for you to
It is also good practice to go through the example
essays in relation to the sample prompt and
identify the techniques the author used and the
style they adopted. Compare these essays against
your own and ask yourself: “What did this
person do that I did not?” Don’t be too literal
when trying to learn from these essays. A lot of the
understanding of how to write these essays comes
over time from internalizing the techniques on a
subconscious level.
Whether you still have doubts after reading all
these material, or think you’re ready to submit
your paper, talk to your professor. Run your
ideas by them. You might learn new things that
weren’t mentioned in class, or you might be
challenged with counter-arguments. This is not to
say that you should slavishly amend your ideas to
align with your professor’s; rather, you should
consider what different dispositions and
assumptions you and your professor have, and try
as much in your paper to bridge any conceptual
gaps between writer and reader—whether through
rhetoric or more nuanced consideration—in order
to make a persuasive and compelling argument. To
write an effective paper, you have to know your
audience—and your professor is your audience.
So, read the assignment prompt, the course
syllabus, and the example essays, and talk to
your professor.
Sample Passages
Sample 1
The “Good Morning” sequence in the film
demonstrates a turning point as sound and color
bring motifs to a forefront. Just as the characters
have a revelation, character development, emotion,
and plot fall into place for the audience. The scene is
set up as the camera closes in from outside the
window as it rains. The next shot encompasses a
bowl of yellow fruit on top of a golden cloth in the
foreground and the actors centered at the table as
the sound of the rain fades out. The fade-out goes
unnoticed but elevates the scene from realism, and
the splash of yellow in the frame introduces this
significant color that will be revisited. As Don and
Kelly stand together, their outfits are clearly
complementary, each incorporating pale blue and
gray tones, at last aligning the characters and making
it apparent that they work together as a team. The
scene gradually builds up to a musical number
through sound. Initially discouraged, the trio is
uplifted with an idea that culminates in song and
dance. Though background noise is silent, Kathy
and Cosmo’s voices start to take on enthusiastic,
musical tones as they “one up” each other in a
crescendo that leads Cosmo to do a jig and song.
This is silly at the time, but introduces song to a
scene that is still grounded in reality, which is clear as
he bumps into a wall, ending his display. It also
serves as an important transition to song, as
afterward, the score begins and gives Don and Kathy
the idea of making his film into a musical, again
demonstrating how the pair work together. The
music builds up as the three once more begin an
animated speaking crescendo as their idea falls into
place. Kathy’s line, “and what a lovely morning!” is
the final melodic transition that works perfectly to
draw characters into the musical number.
These three sample passages each discuss the same
scene from Singin’ in the Rain, with specific regard
to the use of sound and color.
This first example provides a thorough analysis of
both sound and color; it also goes further in
explaining the effects of sound and color on
thematic elements (e.g. unity) and on the film’s
However, the author of this paragraph might have
attempted to do too much in this paragraph; the
paragraph discusses only one scene, but the ideas
that are generated are not completely related. It
would be clearer to discuss sound and color in two
separate paragraphs, as the next two samples do.
Sample 2
The “Good Morning” number uses sound to
seamlessly weave its talking and musical components
together. It allows the action to effortlessly transition
from Don, Cosmo, and Kathy talking, to a fabulous
song and tap number, and then to resume their
conversation. The instrumental track starts
underscoring the trio’s conversation, so when Kathy
begins singing, it is a logical extension of her line,
This next example is a less, but sufficiently detailed
treatment of sound in the same scene. This
paragraph’s strength is in its concision and focus—
unlike the previous one, it looks only at sound and
links it directly to the film’s realism.
“and what a lovely morning!” This naturally embeds
the song into the scene without disrupting its flow.
A similar sound technique is used to transition out
of the dance sequence and back into the characters’
dialogue. Instead of pausing after the musical
number ends to leave space for where the applause
would fall (had this been a live performance), they all
immediately begin laughing. Their distinct selfawareness of what just occurred makes the number
weave into the world and feels more natural and less
Sample 3
The scene also uses color to develop Don, Kathy,
and Cosmo’s narrative and emotional unity. The
filmmakers avoid striking juxtapositions of color,
and instead use it to subtly underscore a
development. Cosmo’s gray suit and Don’s light blue
shirt are both reflected in Kathy’s grayish-blue dress.
Narratively, this scene is where the trio comes up
with an idea together. Emotionally, it is where they
begin to think like a team. The shared colors of their
costumes work harmoniously to reflect their
cohesive unit. As the scene progresses and
excitement rises, the rooms they dance through
become more colorful and gain depth. It is still a
restrained design, but yellow, purple, and gold
accents are added. Care is taken to keep colors from
becoming too assertive. The raincoats that Kathy,
Don, and Cosmo dance with each vary slightly in
shade as to avoid a uniform, picture-perfect look.
Their hues are not aggressively yellow, a distinction
from the yellows in “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti
Hat” number from All the Gang’s Here. The
incomparable dancing of the trio is the priority here,
and color is used to support it and not distract.
This last example covers the same point that the
first example does on color. However, as with the
second example, this example is less technically
detailed. The author makes up for this by
seamlessly weaving this visual detail with its
thematic implication.
In addition, the author draws the use of color in
this scene in comparison with another scene from
another film, thus demonstrating her close
attention to detail beyond this film. Despite using
an example from another film, this comparison is
relevant, as it is made to justify her analysis that
“care is taken to keep colors from becoming too
Some online resources
writing film papers
University of Richmond Writing Center
Despite the outmoded aesthetics of this
web resource, there are two pages that
could prove particularly useful to some
students who are new to writing about
visual techniques in film. ‘Advice from
Professors’ is a helpful reminder of what
instructors want students to learn from
writing about film: that it is a narrative
medium that employs particular visual
techniques to tell a story, and that any
good analysis would explain how form
and content are brought together to
produce the film’s meaning. ‘Film Terms’
provides a rudimentary and handy list of
technical terms (and useful, brief
examples) that students may use in their
papers to show their engagement with
visual devices.
The Writing Center, University of
Colorado, Denver
This downloadable PDF is a broad
overview of the types of paper a student
should expect to write for a film course.
With each broad category, the author
lists guiding questions that would be
useful in helping students consider the
purpose and approach of their writing.
Yale Film Studies
This multimedia resource provides short
introductions in greater detail than the
list provided by the first link above.
Additionally, there are two shot-by-shot
sample analyses that students might find
useful in learning how to begin their
analysis. Note however, that these
samples are probably too bare or skeletal
for a real film paper; they are good
starting points, but ideally, students
would have to go into greater elaboration
to build their analyses and arguments.
Duke University Writing Studio
This great resource is concise and
effective in three main areas: 1) the
‘Overview’ section puts the purpose of
writing a film paper into perspective by
suggesting an approach of ‘visual literacy’
rather than passive viewing; 2) ‘Moving
from Description to Analysis’ provides a
good paragraph outline; and 3) the
‘Movement’ section offers simple but
effective guiding questions or prompts
on how a student may go about thinking
and writing about the sequence of shots
in a film.
*Last accessed April 2016